Written by Ben Goren.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”  – Mario Savio, Berkeley Free Speech Movement. December 2nd 1964.

Following the end of the White Terror Martial Law period in Taiwan, a mere twenty seven years ago, Taiwanese vigorously embraced democratisation and came to place a great value on freedom of voting, freedom of movement, freedom of speech. Another freedom that has been enthusiastically adopted, and is now socially and culturally institutionalised, has been freedom of association and the ability to form private pressure and advocacy groups without sanction or threat of arrest.  As a result, hundreds if not thousands of private groups exist which organise, mobilise, campaign, raise awareness, and seek to educate the public about a wide range of issues from special needs education, LGBTQIA rights, environmental protection, labour welfare, endangered species habitat preservation, judicial reform, abolition of capital punishment and so on. Finally, despite the arguably unconstitutional nature of Martial Law era statutes such as the Parade and Assembly Law, Taiwanese have nonetheless strived to maintain and exercise rights to publicly protest when they feel institutions of the State are acting ultra vires or completely ignoring public opinion.  Indeed, if it weren’t for Taiwanese taking to the streets, the country may not have arrived at the level of democratic freedoms it enjoys at present.  It were protests over rigged elections that contributed to pressure on late KMT dictator Chiang Ching-kuo to allow greater electoral freedom including the right to vote for a genuine opposition party.  The at the time illegal occupation of Liberty Square by the Wild Lily Student Movement which in many ways kickstarted the constitutional reform process that led to a fully Taiwan indigenous representative politics, direct Presidential elections, and the switch to a semi-Presidential system of Government.  Public protest, both large and small, sporadic and organised, mobile and ‘occupationist’, has played a critical role in the nation’s democratisation and can be argued to be an embedded feature, if by accident of the unresponsiveness of Government institutions and officials, of Taiwan’s political landscape and discourse.  Where many decry Taiwanese for being passive and fatalistic, when the numbers are added up, Taiwanese are as active, if not more active, in utilising public protest as a tool of last resort, as any other nation of people in the world.  Taiwanese are, by and large, ‘active citizens’.  They engage with their democracy and when all else fails they are not afraid to march the streets for redress.

Where the recent 318 Movement and anti-nuclear marches and occupations have explicitly eschewed violence or physical response to police brutality, not all protest in recent years has been equally peaceful. The near riots that followed the KMT’s loss in the 2004 Presidential election, were as arguably less grass-roots expressions of a public seeking redress for an obvious electoral fraud (though this was the KMT’s claim at the time), and more systematically encouraged attempts to overturn the election results through violence, calls for insurrection, and threats of widespread break down in the rule of law.  This protest was deliberately incited by then KMT Chairman Lien Chan and KMT legislators who refused to recognise the results of the election and who occupied parts of Taipei City for weeks after the Central Election Commission had confirmed the results.  KMT legislator Chiu-Yi was seen, and later sentenced to prison time for, attempting to break into the Kaohsiung District Court building whilst riding on a soundtruck, which he exhorted to repeatedly ram, at speed, into a group of police officers protecting the building. Lien Chan himself and others in the media made oblique references to killing President Chen Shui-bian.  Police officers were attacked with sticks, rocks, and even molotov cocktails. 

Occupation is not a new tactic either. Commentators who were surprised by the 318 Movement’s recent occupation of the Legislative Yuan and later street occupations by anti-nuclear groups this year, and who described them as essentially ‘antidemocratic’, should remember that the 2006 ‘Red Shirt Protests’, verbally and physically supported by then Taipei City KMT Mayor Ma Ying-jeou and current Taipei City KMT Mayor Hau long-bin, occupied a large area of central Taipei City for several weeks, miring the city in logistic gridlock. They should also remember that at no time during that occupation were riot police, water cannons, or tear gas called upon to disperse the crowd.  The then DPP Government, priding itself on being the first following peaceful transition of power after fifty-one years of KMT dictatorship and political hegemony, could not risk its entire reputation by sinking to the same authoritarian tactics it had for so long criticised the KMT for resorting to. Another factor was that with Taipei City Government controlled by the KMT, and given the party’s extensive and continuing informal influence upon the institutions of law enforcement and judiciary, the DPP could not be sure the police would have followed orders to violent evict the Red Shirts anyway. What was clear was that when it suited them, the KMT were happy to incite violent uprising against a government it perceived as benefiting from fraudulent elections, and support occupation as tactic for extracting concessions from the Government. Both actions were claimed in the name of democracy and representing the will of the people.

How times change. Once the KMT returned to power, its attitude to protests has markedly changed. One significant the turning point was the visit of then ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin in November 2008. The subsequent four day protests, largely organised by the DPP, turned particularly ugly when news emerged of police arbitrarily restricting freedom of movement, assaulting peaceful protestors, desecrating the national flag, and closing down private businesses that it said were inciting crowds.  The Wild Strawberry Student Movement occupation subsequently emerged as a direct result of what it perceived were the KMT Government’s use of police as a force of political oppression and a brutal instrument to quash dissent. One of their key criticisms focused on the KMT’s recourse to the Parade and Assembly Law as a blunt tool to claim that almost any protest of any size was illegal. Another criticism was that police were not censured for the recorded brutality they enacted against protestors during Chen’s visit but were instead commended and promoted.  The Government had sent a strong signal that police actions would be given legal cover and exonerated by politicians, and that ‘inconvenient’ or ‘embarrassing’ protest would not be tolerated, especially should it come close to achieving any kind of substantive results.  The students were scorned, patronised, ignored, and finally, physically dispersed by police.  Pro-Government media accused them of over-reacting and being stooges of the DPP, and the Government itself deigned only to alternately ‘show concern’ for their welfare and instruct universities and schools to ‘provide better education’ so as to prevent further ‘mistakes’ and ‘misunderstandings’.

In March this year the 318 Movement directly challenged the KMT and Government over the issue of transparency and accountability in handling cross-strait agreements, and what they saw as the abuse legislative procedure to rubber stamp the agreements without due process and public oversight. Without warning, a group of students occupied the Legislative Yuan and did so successfully for close to a month, and with significant public support. Where Central and Taipei City governments showed a good degree of restraint during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, the brief occupation of the Executive Yuan on March 24th was the final straw.  Riot police were sent in along with water cannon and protestors were indiscriminately beaten, even after being removed from the Executive Yuan building and surrounding streets. Where the Government was relatively passive about the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, its response to the brief loss of control of its cabinet buildings revealed a red line – it would not allow its ability to function, or ‘its authority to be intentionally challenged’. This is exactly the rationale Deputy Minister of the Interior Jonathan Chen later drew upon when he outlined the Government’s new attitude towards protestors who occupy public roads following anti-nuclear protests in April. Chen warned that the Government was planning preventative detentions to quash possible protest leaders’ abilities to mobilise physical manifestations of dissent which it regarded as ‘endangering the public’. In comments to the Legislative Yuan, Premier Jiang defended the use of preventative detention (the Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates that the measure can only be used against offenders of specific crimes — to prevent them from repeating the crime) by saying that it will not target students or protesters but “a small number of people who have repeatedly led the crowd to attack the Legislative Yuan and impeded lawmakers’ access to government buildings”. Already one man has been detained for questioning by police for allegedly reposting a call to occupy the MRT on Facebook. Journalist J. Michael Cole, recently noted in this worrying analysis how the Government appears to be flirting with ‘authoritarianism lite’ citing as an example how the Government has instructed the National Police Administration to set up ‘new media units’ to ‘correct disinformation’ about the Government online.  According to Cole, the paternalistic Ma Administration is doubling down rather than listening or genuinely responding to public discontent.  It cannot admit it is wrong and if there is public angst it is because the public are misinformed or being manipulated.

Although a running theme of the Government’s increasing intolerance towards protests has been a bemoaning that they are undemocratic and ‘chaotic’ (see Premier Jiang’s comment here that protests must be conducted “in a peaceful manner so as not to disrupt social order and that since the nation is also governed by the rule of law … those who intentionally cause social unrest will be dealt with accordingly to safeguard citizens’ rights and interests”), critics point out that this is an excuse hiding a reflexive authoritarianism that resides deep within the culture and values of the KMT, and an instinctive reactionary reflex against any challenge to the Government’s authority.  Respected Taiwan observer Michael Turton notes how almost every time students have participated in protests since 2008, the Government has employed a “discourse of education, rationality, and guidance”, coded and subtly threatening language that is widely perceived in Taiwan as synonymous with the kind of Government ‘instruction’ typical of the days of dictatorship. Further, by emphasising the need for ‘social order and harmony’ in building the justification for cracking drown on those who cause ‘social unrest’, the Government in Taipei is in danger of starting to sound suspiciously similar to the one in Beijing. The Government demands its authority be respected but authority, in any political system, can only demand to be respected for as long as that authority is respectfully earned. It is not a fixed entitlement but an ongoing process – an open ended social contract subject to continual appraisal. In a democracy, it is the subjects of authority, not the claimed holders, who determine the validity of that authority, and it is the subjects who always reserve the unconditional right to say when authority has transgressed the boundaries of legitimate use of power and have therefore lost the right to demand respect.

It increasingly appears that this Government can only accept the actions of ‘active citizens’ who use ‘traditional’ or ‘acceptable’ channels of protest – namely those which will likely have no significant impact on Government policy via effective mobilisation of widespread public disenchantment and anger with Government policies. In calling spontaneous and peaceful occupation protests undemocratic, and framing them as violent inconveniences when there is no evidence of violence and the inconvenience caused is almost negligible, the Ma Administration could be accused of raising the rhetorical bar prior to justifying further clampdowns designed to dissuade the public from protesting.  From the beginning of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan on March 18th, the Government attempted to tar the 318 Movement and later anti-nuclear protests with the accusation of being organised and manipulated by the Democratic Progressive Party, painting it as partisan attempts by the minority DPP to prevent the majority KMT from carrying out its mandate.  Although the DPP did ally itself with the 318 Movement, it was prevented from appropriating it by the students who knew only too well that they would lose the large scale public support they enjoyed if they allowed that to happen.  The role of the DPP in the anti-nuclear protests has been more direct but this has mostly been restricted to formal planned protest marches for which the party usually gains police approval in advance. The spontaneous occupation of the thoroughfare outside Taipei Train Station or the attempt to prevent legislators of all parties from leaving the Legislative Yuan without dealing with the question of the fourth nuclear power plant was not instigated by the DPP yet this hasn’t prevented Premier Jiang from attempting to imply that protests are partisan top-down phenomenon which the DPP can stop by calling on the public to “stop instigating social unrest.”  The Government refuses to see protests as genuine expressions of grass-roots frustration for fear that this would give them a legitimacy and authority they would have to respect.  Ironically, a blind eye is seemingly turned to protests that are clearly being instigated by political parties, most notably the counter-protest organised by former gangster Chang An-le’s fledgling ‘Unification Party’ (which police later excused as not a protest but the ‘passing by’ of pedestrians), and most recently by both the pro-annexation New Party, and KMT Youth Leagues, both of which called on citizens to express their patriotism by marching in support of the police and the ‘restoration of social order’, stability, democracy, and the rule of law.  Interestingly, these protests have attempted to tie linguistically link defence of democracy to identification with the ROC and anti Taiwan independence, exposing how parties allied to the Government’s Chinese nationalism are seeking to frame anti-KMT and anti-Government protests as mere fronts for ‘separatist’ insurrectionism. Democracy and democratic activism, to them, is a product of the ROC, the property of the ROC, and has no validity outside the framework of the ROC State.  Those who engage in protest against the Party-State and cause ‘social instability’ are not motivated by anything other than a desire to overthrow the Government and declare Taiwan independence.  This reductionist and absurd argument has little purpose other than to frighten Taiwanese into being tarred by association should they decide to participate in or support protests against Government policies, regardless of how partisan the issue at hand is.

In turn, it appears that the Ma Administration has now come to regard almost anyone who disagrees with them as ‘citizen activists’ – manipulated subversives with a ‘micro-minority’ agenda seeking to contrive a political outcome through pressure of coordinated mass action that incapacitates either Government institutions or semi-permanently occupies physical location until a demand is met. The description of the Taipei Station anti-nuclear protestors as ‘hijackers’ by Taipei City Government officials, and the frequent depiction of occupying protestors as engaging in a form of political blackmail by ‘kidnapping’ public spaces, is an escalation of rhetoric which seems designed to smear protesters in the public mind as anti-democratic.  ‘Citizen Activists’ in this narrative, are not reasonable, not respectful of other citizens’ rights, are contemptuous of the institutions of democracy, and want to force a majority elected Government to bend to their will. Again, ‘legitimate’ democratic expression is delimited in definition to occasional elections, small protests that present no challenge or pressure upon the Government, and the petitioning of your Legislator to ‘do the right thing’. The most obvious and immediate counter-criticism to this line of argument was summed up neatly by twitter user @jmstwn who pointed out that “saying “but we have a democracy!” in response to protests is like saying “but we’re a restaurant!” when customers complain about the food.”

The Government’s claim that its authority should not be challenged because it derives from it’s electoral majority is a subject visited by Academia Sinica researcher and electoral systems specialist Nathan Batto.  In his private blog, Batto suggests that one of the reasons why protests are getting more intense and more frequent may not just be public anger at Government policies but also the very design of Taiwan’s democratic system.  He argues that power is too concentrated and there are no means for citizens to have an input outside of infrequent polarised elections in which minority parties can’t fairly compete.  He explains that, “from opponents’ point of view, there are almost no points of access from which they can try to modify or block government policies.  The opposition parties in the legislature are impotent, the ruling party in the legislature follows orders from above, the courts are useless, local governments only have limited power, and there is usually no upcoming election to throw their energies into.  There simply is no way to work within the system to stop policies that they do not like.  All they can do is go out onto the street.  When even street protests seem useless, even more radical steps are on the horizon.”  As people feel ever more ignored, marginalised, and disenfranchised, their protests might escalate much further and come to include outright violence, taking Taiwan’s democracy on a dangerously uncertain trajectory.  That would be a very worrying development if only because the Government’s response would likely become harsher and swifter by a significant magnitude.  The police, already suspected of being politicised and accused of ‘enjoying’ beating up protestors, could once again become an overt arm of the KMT Party-State, used to maintain obedience and crush dissent.

When the Ma Administration begins to see all protests not as manifestations of active citizenry but a sinister ‘citizen activism’ (as the CCP does in China, and as Putin’s political allies do in Russia) then there is real danger that the limits of democratic participation will be pushed back so far that it may once again be inaccurate to describe Taiwan as a democracy.  Such is the nature of Taiwan’s polarised political environment, a politics professor at a top ranking public university once described to me that policing under the Chen Administration was a ‘Green Terror’. This ridiculous and insulting attempt to create a moral equivalence between the DPP Government and the former KMT Marital Law dictatorship is illustrative of the kind of polemics that are routinely utilised in deeply partisan political discourse in Taiwan.  Whilst few Taiwanese would genuinely imagine it possible that Taiwan’s democracy, rather than continue to decolonize and move towards transitional justice, could actually regress, it is a sign of how worried people in Taiwan are that as the police in Taipei and elsewhere take ever more extreme steps to curb protests, and as the Government entrenches itself ever more dogmatically as it refuses to admit error or culpability, all whilst cloaking itself in the rhetoric of democracy and social order, there is renewed concern that a kind of KMT instituted White Terror could be returning to haunt Taiwanese a second time around.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan, one of the most prominent blogs on Taiwan in English. He tweets @BanGaoRen.

Image by J. Michael Cole.